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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Mental health needs to be prioritized

Published: August 22, 2014
Section: Opinions

According to an assessment by the 2013 American College Health Association, 51 percent of college students participating experienced overwhelming anxiety, 31.3 percent experienced depression so severe to the point of difficulty in functioning and 7.4 percent seriously considered suicide. This assessment involved surveying 123,078 college students.

While not every student encounters stress to this extent, it is well known that many are plagued with thoughts about uncertain futures, career paths and impending debt. In addition, almost all of us suffer from daily stressors involving family, friends and significant others. Some of us deal with this stress by ignoring it, and some of us develop other coping mechanisms, such as working out, seeing a therapist or venting to friends.

However, there are many students out there who have no idea how to tackle stress, or do so in an ineffective or destructive manner. Depression and anxiety can result from chronic stress and pressure felt by students. On the other hand, some might already have some kind of mental illness that is exacerbated by stress. In order to address this vital issue and prevent precarious outcomes down the road, there should be a plethora of amenities available to everyone on the Brandeis campus. We need services that help us feel supported, nurtured and informed throughout this hectic time in our lives.

Although stress from school or elsewhere originates from external stimuli, it manifests physically within the body. Stress triggers a sympathetic nervous system response: increased heart rate and blood pressure, shallow breathing and, indirectly, increased cortisol production (which leads to weight gain and a slew of other medical issues). Therefore, it only makes sense that in order to combat stress one must focus on two areas: physical health and emotional health. In the first category, Brandeis does provide a lot of tools to its students: We have the Gosman gymnasium, home to free fitness classes, various cardio and strength machines and free weights. Some dorms also have gyms, dance studios or some cardio machines. Both Usdan and Sherman offer many healthy choices (albeit repetitive, only to be expected at a university), and the C-Store has a vast amount of healthy snacks and produce in stock.

Despite all of this, Brandeis seems to be falling short in caring for the emotional health of their students. Mailman Counseling Center gives every student 10 free counseling sessions per academic year, which can be adjusted with the discretion of a therapist. This is certainly better than some other colleges; however, Mailman has received many complaints over the years ranging from poor staff and limited hours to students simply having no idea it exists. The Psychological Counseling Center University Committee is working on addressing these issues, and more information about Mailman is being incorporated into Orientation programming. While this is a great start to the battle against stress on the Brandeis campus, this is not enough for all students. For the exorbitant amount of money that we pay for tuition and the extremely high caliber of classes we take (and therefore, the stressful coursework needing to be completed), Brandeis should be catering to all aspects of our health.

For years we slaved in high school so that we could gain admission to a university as phenomenal as Brandeis, and unfortunately, the hard work did not end there. This stress will inevitably follow us wherever we go after graduation and well into our professional and adult lives. We deserve to enjoy our college years and revel in the learning we do in our four years here, but it seems that more and more students are not able to enjoy learning in a classroom or even being college students and approach their education only as a gateway to the next milestone in their lives. This devalues the actual learning we do and places a disproportionate emphasis on grades and resumé building. We need more resources to remind us to take a step back and relax, to remember that despite being college students, it is imperative to enjoy life and let loose a little. For students who struggle with this, there must be more amenities on campus to support them and provide tools for coping and help.

While Brandeis does a good job overall of taking care of its students physically, there are still ways to improve. One step that would make eating healthy easier for students is to implement the app CampusDish, which gives students information regarding nutritional and ingredient content for each menu item daily. Brandeis could also learn from Washington University in St. Louis, which has chef demonstrations and teaches students how to prepare healthy meals. In regards to exercise programs, physical health is a personal preference for students. Some like playing team sports or participating in-group classes, some working out alone and some detest exercise completely. However, Brandeis should expand its physical exercise program to include more relaxation classes, such as meditation or Tai Chi. While a popular fitness class at Brandeis, yoga is only offered once a week. Yoga and meditation have been proven to reduce stress and promote relaxation and peace of mind, and therefore should be offered several times a week at multiple times. Another amenity to consider might be accessible outings that promote physical activity, like kayaking, ice skating or skiing to create an opportunity for students to de-stress via socialization and physical activity.

Brandeis primarily needs to improve the care of its students in terms of emotional healthcare and education. Most complaints about the Psychological Counseling Center (PCC) revolve around a lack of communication between staff and students. However, some students also feel that there simply is not a nurturing presence on campus for those who suffer from any mental illnesses or those just having a hard time. The first step to overcoming this hurdle is eliminating the stigma that too often accompanies mental health. There needs to be a concerted effort made by the administration, the health clinic, the PCC and even student organizations to reverse this damaging stigma and to provide information about mental health. Most individuals who do not seek help for mental illness or emotional issues are afraid of being judged and alienated because of the negative portrayal of mental health in society. The importance of overcoming this issue cannot be overstated, especially in younger populations.

A more alarming issue that has been brought up about the PCC is the difficulty students have in trying to change a dose in medication. Students also often complain that if they are contemplating going on a new medication they have difficulty gaining access to a psychiatrist. For example, one student said that it took a small overdose to get the staff of the PCC to address his own personal needs. Prior to that event, his requests to seek medical treatment were ignored.

This is appalling and inexcusable behavior. As the sole resource students have for mental health treatment on campus, the service of the PCC should be reliable, rapid and, most importantly, should earn students’ trust. There is scarce hope that students can do well in their classes or enjoy themselves when vitally important aspects of their well being are being ignored or ineffectively tended to. There absolutely needs to be a big improvement in the PCC and its protocols. Luckily, the PCC is making improvements this year, including revamping the staff. The Psychological Counseling Center Committee is also geared up to work closely with the PCC in order to make more improvements over the course of the year.

In addition to improving counseling at Brandeis, Brandeis should offer resources and classes to provide information about mental illness, stress and other hardships students face. The school should start by implementing workshops geared toward stressors and medical issues that pervade college campuses. These can include issues that run rampant on campus like binge drinking, nutrition and weight management, but also depression, anxiety and ADD. These classes can explain the symptoms or trademark signs of such conditions and dispense pointers, potential solutions and support to students. An excellent resource that Columbia University offers is a website called “Go Ask Alice,” where reliable information from health professionals is provided about anything from mono to bipolar disorder. Often, students are too self-conscious or shy to talk about their health concerns, so a website with a plethora of information could be a huge source of comfort and support.

Often in the realm of mental health care, it can seem like the care people receive is cold, clinical and too medical; sometimes students just need to relax in silence to unwind or think through a problem. Some people just do not like to talk about their problems. Therefore, it would be immensely helpful to anyone of this nature to just have a quick massage or a place to meditate in silence, or something similar in nature. So Brandeis should consider investing in more services that could help provide this type of relaxation—Bowdoin College and other schools have already implemented massage chairs, acupuncture, reflexology and a meditation room. Simply having a few days a semester where therapy dogs come to campus can work wonders for students.

Although a necessary component to living a happy and full life, figuring out how stress can be most effectively decreased is actually a new venture in psychology research. Dr. Nicholas Rohleder, a psychology professor at Brandeis, remarked that only just now is the research field “taking a step forward and testing out different ways on how the impact of stress can be buffered or ameliorated … we are starting to test how stress perceptions and stress responses can be modified.”

Because some improvements to mental health care at Brandeis are sure to be very expensive and all of these solutions cannot be implemented at once, it would be fitting that the administration keeps up with this research as best as it can. Brandeis should put some amenities in place immediately but should take time to follow research on this topic for more solutions to combat stress and support mental health on campus. Only then should it make an investment that would be most valuable to the university and its students. However, it is vital that some action be taken as soon as possible to provide more support to students who suffer from the backlash of stress and mental illness alone or without the appropriate help.